Real-life drama erupts over new NBC biomedical slueth show

Thursday, September 9, 2004

The scene: a busy Manhattan street. A well-dressed man, suddenly short of breath, looks in horror at his hands and collapses on the sidewalk. His skin is an eerie blue.

Cut to Bethesda, Md., where a man's cell phone rings. Soon he is sprinting to a nearby field, where a black helicopter swoops in to pick him up.

"We've got an incident!" he says. "Get everyone. We're going to New York."

So begins Friday's premiere of "Medical Investigation," NBC's new dramatic series. Part "ER," part "CSI," the show tracks a team of biomedical gumshoes whose weekly task is to learn why people fall ill in droves.

The series is based on the real-life Epidemic Intelligence Service, the elite corps of moon-suited heroes who chase Ebola outbreaks, anthrax attacks and other emergencies for the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which has been consulting with the show's producers for months.

It is publicity no amount of money could buy for the CDC, an agency historically overshadowed by its richer sister, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Except that in NBC's version, these hotshots are not part of the CDC at all, but rather ... of NIH.

In public health circles, the result has been an epidemic of apoplexy.

"It's infuriating," said one physician affiliated with the CDC, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Retribution? Here the plot thickens. In Washington, where everything is political, the story has grown to the proportions of a grand conspiracy, with some attributing the slighting of the CDC to high-level officials at NIH and perhaps even to Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services.

Not so fast, said HHS spokesman Bill Hall.

"People in HHS never said they wanted it this way," Hall said, adding that the show is entertainment, not a documentary. "From HHS' perspective, we're all happy that NBC has seen fit to depict an element of the government that works to protect people and save lives. We're just happy to get people interested in epidemiology."

Hall and others confirmed, however, that bubbling dissent within the CDC and the larger public health community had led to efforts in recent months to let NBC know that the show's heroes are on the wrong federal payroll. Opinions differ as to how aggressively NIH sought to set the record straight.

What is known is that separate letters to NBC were originally crafted by CDC and NIH officials, but those were scrapped in favor of a joint letter that never got past the draft stage. Finally, a few weeks ago, representatives from both agencies flew to Hollywood to discuss the problem with writers and producers.

By then, the first episodes had been shot.

But as with so much in television, said Chris Conti, NBC's senior vice president for drama development, there is less to this plot than meets the eye.

"It's not like we're against them," Conti said of the CDC. "But when you say the word 'CDC,' an image comes into your head of a bunch of guys in hazmat suits, with steel sliding doors and everything shot in blue light." By contrast, he said, "NIH" had more of a "blank-slate" image that gave producers more room to be creative.

"It's a fudge, I admit it," Conti said. "There are futzes here and there. It's television."

The good news for CDC fans: The writers have agreed to start mentioning the agency in future episodes.

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